Minimalism: Key to Success of the Early Church

There has been a recent reawakening of an interest towards minimalism. This can be seen by scouring Netflix documentaries such Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things or Small Is Beautiful: A Tiny House. Tech leader Apple, Inc. paved the way for flat design, an interface incorporating a minimalist style, which is now standard practice for websites and applications. Running has adopted this theme with new design for minimalist sneakers, spearheaded by Christopher McDougall in his 2011 book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. From physical houses to digital designs, this reversion to minimalism perhaps is speaking of a greater desire, that society is searching for a purer, simpler form of its interests. The simplicity of minimalism gives way to an unadulterated version of the subject.

When looking at modern-day churches, particularly in the Western world, perhaps the church can learn and adopt some of these practices. A brief study of the early church may help recover the identity of the modern-day church and its purpose. Minimalism may be the key next step for the church to continue its ongoing mission, to be a witness to the end of the earth.[1]

As contextualization is key, it is important to paint a picture of the first few centuries the early church existed. Three factors influencing this period would be the socioeconomic condition, persecution, and religious syncretism. The early church was born in a time of relative peace and connectedness. The “Roman law and Hellenistic culture comprised the context in which the early church took shape.”[2] Trade routes and developed roads allowed the early Christians to travel more easily and thus could have aided in the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This time of peace is quickly overridden by a series of persecutions beginning with Nero in the late first-century to the Great Persecution in the late third to early fourth-century. Martyrdom was common and exemplified by men like Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr. Interestingly, martyr is the Greek word for witness and it is perhaps in this kind of spirit that these early Christians gave their lives for the testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is, however, outside the scope of this paper. The imperial unity brought forth by the Roman Empire also came with challenges, one being syncretism (i.e. “the indiscriminate mixing of elements from various religions and emperor worship”[3]). With the conquest of different lands and the discovery of a plurality of gods, it was important to merge these religions to keep a relative peace. This came as a challenge to the message of Jesus as the one and only true God.

With the backdrop of historical context in place, it is now easier to picture the early church’s gathering, purpose, and structure. The early church gathering mainly consisted of those who believed. Following Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and baptism, is the first example of a gathering of believers. This church primarily consisted of Jewish Christians, but soon after did Gentile Christians become the dominant demographic. The Hellenized Jews and Greeks who came to faith caused divisions in the early church, an issue Apostle Paul was forced to address in his epistles.[4] The distinction between the church and the general gathering is further enhanced by the rise of the catechumenate, where two services were issued, one of the Word and one of the table.[5] Despite the differences, the gathering of the church was meant for a body of believers and less focus was given on the church and its existence for nonbelievers. This singular focus may have simplified the decision on where to gather as well.

The late 20th and early 21st century gave rise to a reawakening of the house-church movement. An article from Ministry Today in 2000 gives four reasons in support of this movement, reclaiming the New Testament church found in Acts.[6] “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.”[7] This return to the “original church” has been questioned by Edward Adams in The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Houses?. By examining scriptural, literary, and archaeological evidences, Adams concludes that “while there is indeed good evidence for houses as Christian meeting places in the first two centuries, it is not as extensive or exclusive as usually thought.”[8] Through the methodology of availability, analogous use, adequacy, and advantage, Adams identifies other possibilities of meeting places such as the taberna, meaning shop or workshop.[9]These retail spaces were a very likely meeting place considering it was “the most ubiquitous and dominant urban architectural form”[10] and were places where “private worship and intellectual/didactic activity” were conducted.[11] The location of where the early church gathered begs modern Christians to question the rationale behind meeting at designated places of worship, requiring zoning applications, massive fundraising, and stark intrusion into communities. Whether at homes, tabernas, public spaces such as inns or catacombs, it seems less important about where the church gathered. These early Christians perhaps are the earliest examples of the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation for the sake of the gospel.

Regardless of location, it was more important to gather frequently. “Let your assembling together be of frequent occurrence: seek after all by name,” wrote Ignatius to his disciple Polycarp.[12] The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers as well: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”[13] Justin Martyr also defends the Christian faith acknowledging the gathering on Sundays in his First Apology.[14]

Most important to the identity of the early church was the purpose of their gathering. Central to this would be a close look again at the first gathering of believers:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, … praising God and having favor with all the people.[15]

It would be foolish to cover the depths of this passage and the ensuing meaning of sacramental theology, but as minimalism requires a purity and simplification, it is evident that the believers focused on: 1) teaching, in context of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; 2) fellowship, consisting of the Eucharist, meals at homes, and prayer; 3) selling possessions and distributing to other’s needs; and 4) praising God. Justin Martyr confirms this type of gathering in the second-century, where believers gathered, the reader read from apostles’ memoirs and writings, prayer was said, bread and wine presented, and a distribution took place.[16] An important aspect of this gathering or what modern Christians may call worship, is that “in the New Testament there is no essential distinction between worship and life: man’s existence is not split into two areas, one where Christ is honoured and the other where man is more or less independent.”[17] J.G. Davies then explains why cultic acts were engaged in, particularly manifesting in baptism and the Eucharist.[18] When examining what modern churches are now responsible for, it may be worth considering what is essential to a gathering of believers, and what are “extra-ecclesial”.[19]

As the gathering of believers continued to grow, there arose a need for structure. The second century quickly brought about a need for ordained ministry, consisting of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.[20] The early church fathers gave further insight to this new order, some holding extremely high views of the positions. Ignatius wrote in his epistle to the Smyrnaeans an order boiling down to the laity being subject to the deacons, whom to the presbyters, whom to the bishops, whom to Jesus, whom to God.[21] Ignatius also holds the view that Caesar be obedient to the bishop, as demonstrated in his Epistle to the Philadelphians.[22] Disregarding the issues concerning two- or three-tier hierarchies,[23] or what the exact meaning of building the church on Peter means,[24] there is a clear role of leadership. With the church’s gradual rise, did “the movement to transform function into office [proceed]” and gave way to a graded hierarchy.[25] Eventually, responsibilities grew outside the religious spheres to include civil matters. When studying the instructions to an elder or deacon, it is interesting to note that there is less emphasis on administrative duties, but more on character.[26] It is also revealing that in the early inception of this order, there were those “[engaged] in sedition against its presbyters” as Clement warned in his first epistle.[27]

While this overview of the early church may be a grotesque oversimplification of the matter, there are some significant nuggets to discover. While the Greco-Roman world may seem alien to the 21st century Christian, the socioeconomic context may not be too far different. The advancement of Rome through roads and trade routes providing a greater access to their world could be seen similar to the ease of international travel today, which only took place in the past century. One step further is the advancement of the Internet in the past few decades, which continues to evolve and connect the world. In addition, although the modern world does not have an emperor issuing syncretism, its spirit still exists in the form of bumper stickers proclaiming, “COEXIST”[28] and new forms of universalism. The church now exists in this cultural, global context. And there has been a push for more church-planting efforts, as it is the “most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”[29]

Without having to reinvent any wheels and to stand upon the shoulders of the greats, perhaps an ongoing study of what churches ought to look like in the modern age is of equal importance to the actual planting itself. The brief look of the early church highlights some key points where the church was first and foremost a gathering of believers. The evangelism taking place may not have primarily happened in or at the gathering on Sundays, but perhaps in the tabernas and more common social circles the early believers engaged. Also, where they gathered is equally important as planting a church does not need to be confined to a church building, but more importantly is the frequent gathering and the purpose: to study the gospel of Jesus Christ, to have fellowship with other believers, to distribute needs, and to praise God. Lastly, as any initial gathering grows into an organization, structure is important, but perhaps more emphasis on character and heart would lead to a greater administration, rather than prioritizing the latter.[30]

The minimalism of the early church holds much value to the ongoing discussion of what it means individually and corporately to be a witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This paper focused more heavily on the model of the church, but there may be more to discover even in terms of purifying the content of the teaching, simplifying the fellowship, and even the various expressions of praise. Davies describes Christian belief in the Church as Christological and Pneumatological. He states, “Hence the ‘double polarity’ of the Church: it is the Temple of the Presence; it is the Body of Christ; it is the Bride of Christ – yet the Temple has still to be built together, the Body has still to be built up, the Bride has still become wholly one with her divine Bridegroom.”[31] Irenaeus also states, “For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.”[32] It is in this spirit that minimalism of the church ought to be examined, that the Church in all its essences continue to be built up and that the global church, a reality now compared to Irenaeus’ imagination, believe in unity, the same faith and Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Acts 1:8 (ESV)

[2] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (Broadway: HarperCollins, 2010), 19.

[3] González, 20.

[4] Rom 11; 1 Cor 1:10-17; Eph 2:11-22.

[5] González, 35.

[6] Jeffrey Henning, “Ministry Today: Serving and empowering church leaders,” accessed November 14, 2017.

[7] Acts 2:46

[8] Edward Adams, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Houses? (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 198.

[9] Ibid., 138.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 143.

[12] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, eds., and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene fathers: The writings of the fathers down to A.D. 325 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), 94.

[13] Heb 10:24-25a.

[14] Roberts, 186.

[15] Acts 2:42, 45, 46a, 47a.

[16] Roberts, 186.

[17] J.G. Davies, The Early Christian Church: A History of Its First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 57.

[18] Ibid., 58.

[19] A pun on extracurricular, meaning activities outside what ought to be essential to the church

[20] Davies, 46.

[21] Roberts, 90.

[22] Ibid., 82.

[23] David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998), 155-157.

[24] Mat 16:18.

[25] Davies, 187.

[26] 1 Tim 3:1-13.

[27] Roberts, 18.

[28] COEXIST is an image originally created by Piotr Mlodozeniec, made up of symbols of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

[29] Peter Wagner, Strategies for Growth (Glendale: Regal, 1987), 168.

[30] More exploration on the “free church” can be explored here: Everett Ferguson, The Early Church and Today Volume 1: Ministry, Initiation, and Worship (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012), 15-32.

[31] Davies, 54-55.

[32] Roberts, 331.